Are Owls Really Wise?
Folks think owls are wise for the same reason they think people who wear glasses are smart: unusually big eyes are taken as a sign of intelligence. And the eyes of owls aren’t only unusually big; they are undeniably huge, taking up so much room in these birds’ skulls that they can’t even turn in their sockets (an owl has to move its entire head, rather than its eyes, to look in different directions).
The myth of the “wise owl” dates back to ancient Greece, where an owl was the mascot of Athena, the goddess of wisdom — but the truth is that owls aren’t any smarter than other birds, and are far surpassed in intelligence by comparatively small-eyed crows and ravens.
Do Elephants Really Have Good Memories?
“An elephant never forgets,” goes the old proverb — and in this case, there’s more than a bit of truth. Not only do elephants have comparatively bigger brains than other mammals, but they also have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities: elephants can “remember” the faces of their fellow herd members, and even recognize individuals whom they’ve met only once, briefly, years before.
The matriarchs of elephant herds have also been known to memorize the locations of watering holes, and there is anecdotal evidence of elephants “remembering” deceased companions by gently fondling their bones. (As to another stereotype about elephants, that they’re afraid of mice, that can be chalked up to the fact that elephants are easily spooked — it’s not the mouse, per se, but the sudden wriggling movement.)
Do Pigs Really Eat Like Pigs?
Well, yes, tautologically speaking, pigs really eat like pigs — just as wolves really eat like wolves and lions really eat like lions. But will pigs actually gorge themselves to the point of throwing up?
Not a chance: like most animals, a pig will only eat as much as it needs in order to survive, and if it does appear to overeat (from a human perspective) that’s only because it hasn’t eaten for a while or it senses that it won’t be eating again any time soon.
Most likely, the saying “eats like a pig” derives from the unpleasant noise these animals make when chowing down their grub, as well as the fact that pigs are omnivorous, subsisting on green plants, grains, fruits, and pretty much any small animals they can unearth with their blunt snouts.
Are Ants Really Hard-Working?
It’s hard to imagine an animal more resistant to anthropomorphization than the ant. Yet people continue to do it all the time: in the fable “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” the lazy grasshopper whiles away the summer singing, while the ant industriously toils away to store up food for the winter (and somewhat ungenerously refuses to share its provisions when the starving grasshopper asks for help).
Because ants are constantly scurrying about, and because different members of the colony have different jobs, one can forgive the average person for calling these insects “hard-working.” The fact is, though, that ants don’t “work” because they’re focused and motivated, but because they’ve been hard-wired by evolution to do so.
Do Crocodiles Really Shed Tears?
In case you’ve never heard the expression, a person is said to shed “crocodile tears” when he’s being insincere about the misfortune of someone else. The ultimate source of this phrase (at least in the English language) is a 14th-century description of crocodiles by Sir John Mandeville: “These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.”
So do crocodiles really “weep” insincerely while they eat their prey? Surprisingly, the answer is yes: like other animals, crocodiles secrete tears to keep their eyes lubricated, and moisturization is especially important when these reptiles are on land. It’s also possible that the very act of eating stimulates a crocodile’s tear ducts, thanks to the unique arrangement of its jaws and skull.